Fairbanks, Alaska is Alaska’s largest interior city, it’s located right in the Aurora oval, and is just below the Arctic Circle.
It’s also a military town, is easy to get to, and is well-situated for anyone hoping to see the northern lights as well as road tripping to some of Alaska’s most magical winter destinations.
I visited at the end of February, early March in 2021 and these are all of the wonderful things I found to do in and around Fairbanks:
Chase the Northern Lights
My main reason for heading to Fairbanks in the winter was to see the northern lights, also commonly called the aurora borealis. Fairbanks is situated in the aurora oval (as is Iceland, Finnish Lapland, and parts of Canada), and has a better position than Anchorage, or especially Juneau, for lights viewing. Even if activity is a bit lower, you have a better chance of seeing the lights within the Aurora oval than outside of it. You can see what I mean by checking out the aurora forecast.
So how do you see the northern lights? You need clear skies, dark skies, and high activity. The KP index measures how strong the auroras are on a scale of 1 to 9. Even if it’s only a two or three, you still have a chance of seeing a faint glow provided you’re within the aurora oval. However if you get lucky and see a KP 4 or 5, you’ll really see the sky dance!
Although we flew into and based ourselves around Fairbanks, the city itself is not a great place to see the lights due to the light pollution of the city. I’d stay on Moose Mountain, a ski area outside of town, or head down to Denali National Park like we did (more on that later). You can also drive or take an aurora tour to the Chena hot springs, which you’ll see more on below.
Although you can take Aurora tours, which will drive you out to the best viewing locations and will help you get photos of the northern lights, the way I’ve always done it is by having a rental car and driving myself. The nice thing about traveling in Alaska in the winter is there aren’t many tourists, and accommodation rarely runs out ahead of time, so leaving room and your itinerary for serendipity could work in your favor if your main objective is to see the northern lights.
However I understand not everyone knows how to photograph the lights, and not everyone feels comfortable driving at night in the snow, so here are some great options for lights viewing around Fairbanks:
- The Aurora Borealis Lodge: Perfectly situated yurts that you can stay in while watching the skies for aurora. This experience includes transport and learning about dog mushing as well.
- Arctic Circle and Aurora Tour: Drive along the famous Dalton Highway to the Arctic Circle with chances for wildlife and northern lights viewing (note that most car rental companies will not allow their vehicles on this treacherous road, so a tour like this is your best bet!)
- Moonlight dogsled, dinner, and northern lights: Get a magical experience mushing at night while looking at the aurora.
The Castner Glacier Ice Cave
The Castner glacier ice cave is about a 2 1/2 hour drive south of Fairbanks. You will also pass by the north pole, which has Santa themed activities. I’ll talk more about that below, but if you don’t have kids and would rather have an outdoor adventure, the ice cave is super cool (pun intended).
Though I’m used to ice caves appearing and disappearing overnight in most glaciers, this ice cave is always there. Even if you visit in the summer, you will still find an ice cave! Watch more in the video:
That said, in the winter you can walk along the frozen river to access it. I was able to follow a pretty clear set of snowshoe tracks to reach it, making it easy to find. However that does not mean it was easy to hike to! Although the trail is flat, the snow was very deep when I went, requiring snow shoes. Most people who did not have snow shoes kept sinking into the waist-deep snow and did not make it all the way. I understand it’s not always like that, but it’s hard to know the conditions before you go, so if you do have snow shoes, bring them along with you. It would be a bummer to drive all that way and not reach the cave.
You can find the cave’s roadside parking area here.
Denali National Park
Denali National Park is swarming with people in the summertime. It’s not hard to understand why, since the park is gorgeous and Denali is the tallest peak in North America. However even though I have been to Alaska twice in the summer, the crowds have kept me away from Denali.
But what about in the winter time? Most of the national park is inaccessible in the winter, with only the road up to mile 3 cleared. But ever since 2018, in February they begin to plow the park’s main road all the way up to mile 12.5 (yes, even in 2021 COVID times when this post was written). This allows you to get amazing views of the mountains all around.
Very few people whom I spoke with recommended going to Denali in the winter, but I’m glad I didn’t listen. There are still plenty of snowshoe trails, and we only passed a handful of other people in the park all day. Can you imagine having Denali National Park almost entirely to yourself?
The town itself is literally boarded up and everything is closed in the winter – even the street lights are turned off! But there are a few places to stay including the Denali Lakeview Inn, which I adored. It was so cozy, and the balcony was perfect for watching the northern lights. We saw our best display out there, and didn’t have to share it with anyone!
I recommend bringing your own food. The inn has a microwave, fridge, eating area, and included breakfast for each room. We brought sandwiches, soup, and salad from the grocery store in Fairbanks and it was perfect.
The World Ice Art Championships
In mid-February each winter until mid-March, Fairbanks hosts the World Ice Art Championships.
I didn’t really have high expectations of this, nor did I have low expectations. I guess I didn’t have any expectations at all – but I was beyond impressed! Though I have had the pleasure of seeing ice sculptures before, the way that the World Ice Art Championships are organized is genius. There’s an area where you can interact with the ice, playing games like chess and cornhole, as well as ice slides for kids. BYO sled.
But that’s not all! The competitive ice sculptures are scattered all throughout a beautiful forest and I was so impressed by what people created! There was everything from whimsical scenes out of a Disney movie to political statements about peace and understanding each other. I didn’t expect to like it as much as I did. It was worth the $16 entry for sure! Pro tip: Go at night to see the sculptures all lit up.
For this year’s dates check out their official website.
Chena Hot Springs
As a Hot Spring enthusiast, when I heard about the Chena hot Springs out of Fairbanks I knew I wanted to check them out. They are self-proclaimed rustic, and I would have to agree. Now I don’t have a problem with this, since primitive hot springs are my favorite (I even did a trip to Idaho just to check out hot springs a couple of years ago), but these were a bit too rustic for me.
At only $15 entry (if you self-drive and bring your own towel), they’re a pretty nice bargain. I did enjoy the springs themselves, particularly at night if it’s a clear night and ripe for aurora, and we went in the early morning when almost nobody was there.
However the accommodations were not nice at all, nor was the restaurant or the locker rooms. Both the food and the rooms provided very little value for the money, at $226 all-in for the room and $20-50 per dinner entree. To put it into perspective, we paid the same for two nights at the Denali Lakeview Inn, yet the room at Chena Hot Springs did not feel clean nor was it very nice.
That said, it’s nice to be able to be at the hot springs, away from city lights, particularly in the winter when driving at night can be treacherous. The springs are an hour outside of town, so being able to run from the room in my bathing suit to the water was pretty nice. They do also have an ice museum on site, but entry is $15 and I think you’ll find the ice art championships much more impressive.
If you don’t have transport, you can also book a tour to soak in the hot springs and see the northern lights. This might be the best option to avoid the meager accommodations but still get a chance to enjoy it at night.
Dog sledding is part of the culture in the northern communities of the world, Fairbanks included.
On the surface level it might seem like dogsledding could be cruel, until you show up and see how batshit crazy these dogs are about doing it! They go absolutely crazy for the chance to run. It’s something you’ve got to see to believe.
I’ve done enough dog sledding around the world to have had my fill, so I didn’t do it in Fairbanks, but if you’ve never tried it before I do recommend you try it! You can book it here.
Given how cold Alaska gets in the winter, snowmobiling becomes another way of getting around! Most lakes and rivers ice over, providing the perfect highway for snowmobiles.
If you’ve never tried it before, it can be tons of fun. And as long as you’re not being a total idiot, the snowmobiles are pretty hard to tip. Just stay on the established trails or even better, take a guided snowmobiling tour where you get a chance to understand how to use the snowmobiles and be with a guide who can show you exactly how to enjoy it to the fullest.
Visit Santa Claus in the North Pole
Depending on when you visit Fairbanks, you might want to pop by the North Pole, which is about an hour south of the city. If you’re going to visit the Castner ice cave, this will be on your way.
Driving through, you’ll get the sense that it’s always Christmas in the north pole! At the time that I was in Fairbanks, Santa wasn’t greeting visitors, but he is there around the holidays and in the summer time. You can also visit his reindeer team. This is probably something kids would love!
Aurora Winter Train
Want to see the Alaskan countryside in the winter without having to operate a vehicle? Then the Aurora winter train might be for you! I wanted to do this, but the train times didn’t quite match up with our itinerary. The other thing to consider is that you will need transportation whenever you get to where you were trying to go. In our case, that was Denali national park and having been there now in the winter I could see that there would have been no options for us if we hadn’t had a vehicle to drive ourselves.
Still, if the journey is enough of a destination for you, just riding the train could be awesome. You can also take it all the way from Fairbanks to Anchorage and down to Seward. Check timetables and book the train here.
Overall it wasn’t necessarily Fairbanks itself that was the destinations for us, but rather all of the wonderful things that we could easily access by flying into there. It’s also a great spot if you want to catch the aurora borealis, with plenty of services and options for car rentals (read more about renting a car and winter conditions in Alaska here), tours, and amazing things to do.
And although I went in winter, pretty much all of these options are available in the summertime too, with the exception of northern lights viewing, which you need dark skies for. In the land of the midnight sun, that can be hard to come by in Alaska.
But regardless of when you go, enjoy the last frontier!
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